Guide: How to Play Catcher

From Bases Loaded 29.10.

“One job” shout the other players and spectators as the catcher lets a pitch roll out of play behind them.

Of course it can be more than a minor inconvenience if the game happens to be on pitch 3 at Parrs Wood or D or F at WSG, as the ball is likely to disappear into the bushes and require some time hunting or a replacement, but on all the other diamonds the ball will be quickly back in play and no-one will remember.

An umpire calls out
An umpire calls out.

In baseball a “passed ball” is when the catcher fails to control a pitch that they would be reasonably expected to (otherwise it’s a “wild pitch”), and this allows base runners to advance. There is no such thing in softball, as runners must be in contact with the base until the pitch is hit, so the catcher letting the pitch go behind them will not cost the team at all.

The job of stopping the ball going out of play behind home plate belongs to the backstop, which is the fence there and off which the ball is playable. The BBC confused the two when they asked for a catcher to appear on the news to discuss the Northern Ireland backstop in Teresa May’s ill considered Brexit deal. Having backstops on all of our diamonds would be lovely and speed up games a little but not that much – it’s not as if the Tuesday games on diamond 7 always finish well before the other games. So the catcher is still relied on to stop pitches that the batter has looked at or swung at and sent backwards – although on the diamonds mentioned above it can be useful to have a member of the batting side as an extra ‘fielder’ in front of the bushes as they tend to be of more use than a row of kitbags or similar.

What should the catcher do then? If they really do only have one job then that is to make outs at home plate – catching pop-ups in fair or foul territory, taking the ball on home plate for forced plays (catchers with a better arm should also try to get the forced runner at third base too, but make sure that the fielder there is expecting the throw or the force could disappear completely) and tagging unforced runners. Always remember that a forced play is the only time you need to stand on the plate… the rest of the time you will only be in the way. Stand with your back foot on the corner of the plate nearest to the thrower and keep it there until you have controlled the ball. You need to give runners as much of the plate as you can – for everyone’s safety! To tag a runner it is best to start off low so that they don’t slide underneath your attempt. If they then try to jump over it simply lift your glove into them. Only keep hold of the ball throughout, with both hands if necessary, as the ball popping out of the fielder’s glove is often the best hope a runner has of escaping a tag and so they might deliberately try to make you drop it, by running with force or trying to dislodge the ball as they pass.

A catcher signals 'no play'.
A catcher signals ‘no play’.

But of course catchers have a lot more to do:

  • If there is no play at home, then try to get out to back up the 1st baseperson, especially if some of the other fielders have wild arms, because saving the extra bases from a ball thrown dead could keep the force on and make a big difference to the game. If the fielder at 1st is good enough to come and back you up with plays at home, then it’s only nice to repay the favour occasionally.
  • Instruct the pitcher to wait until the fielders are ready. This is usually the outfielders, and since the pitcher has their back to them then they could start to pitch before everyone is in position, or even looking the right way. The pitcher has ten seconds to pitch after receiving the ball and the batter being ready (delay beyond this is a ball in the batter’s count), so there should be enough time for the outfield to move in or out for the next batter.
  • If there is no play at home, or none expected, then they should keep an eye on the baserunners to make sure that each runner touches each base. Once “Time” has been called, they can then appeal missed bases to the umpire (who should likewise be keeping an eye on missed bases , but cannot do anything unless they are appealed), who will give the runner out if they also saw it. If the umpire did not see a missed base then the appeal will certainly remind them to watch for them in the rest of the game, which could be to your team’s benefit. Imagine a batter hitting a grand slam, only for the lead runner to miss home plate, an appeal made and that runner the third out of the half-inning: from four runs in to zero through the catcher’s awareness.
  • A knowledgeable catcher can influence the game by their memory of opposition batters. If they know that a particular batter has trouble hitting inside pitches then they can signal this to the pitcher, or get the shortstop to move back and right if they know that is where the batter usually goes. These signals should be silent and, given from the usual position of the catcher, the batter will be unaware of them.
  • Exchange the game balls with the umpire between batters, and throw the new ball back to the pitcher. Not the most exciting of the catcher’s duties, but still pretty important as many LBHs would love to get to hit a small ball. You also have a glove, and the umpire does not, so they will have no hope of controlling or catching a full-bodied throw from the shortstop for example. Take the opportunity to chat to the umpire between plays – it is usually welcome and one minute you’re talking about their new dog then the next you have just happened to mention that the opposition’s 1st base fielder seems to be standing in the wrong place and constantly obstructing runners when your team is batting.

As One Job you also need to be prepared to throw your metal brimmed bowler at secret agents trying to bring down your boss’ criminal empire at the drop of a hat.

(Terrible James Bond related joke.)

Photo credit: Abbie de Zwart